Collaborating in Person May Spark More Innovative Research

Collaborating in Person May Spark More Innovative Research

Bringing people together virtually doesn’t seem to boost disruptive research

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Many people assume today’s easy long-distance collaboration should release an unprecedented flood of innovative scientific research—but, oddly, a new study suggests the opposite may be true.

Several reasons have been suggested for an apparent slowdown in bold new research ideas, but it now seems remote collaboration itself may be a limiting factor. For a recent study in Nature, University of Pittsburgh social scientist Lingfei Wu and his colleagues found that teams collaborating remotely produce fewer breakthroughs.

The researchers analyzed 20 million research papers published between 1960 and 2020 and four million patents filed between 1976 and 2020. They assessed how “disruptive” these were by analyzing citations and scoring each from –1 to 1, where 1 means highly disruptive. Highly disruptive studies were defined as those that eclipse earlier work and open new avenues of research; articles that cite them usually don’t also cite earlier studies they build on. Less disruptive studies incrementally build on previous work, and articles citing them typically also cite preceding studies.

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The researchers found that as the distance between authors’ workplaces increases from zero to at least 600 kilometers, their papers’ probability of being disruptive (having a score above 0) falls by roughly a quarter. This relation holds across varying team sizes, time periods and fields.

To investigate why, Wu and his team analyzed researchers’ self-reported roles. They found that those working together in person were more likely to focus on conceptual tasks—the kind of work apt to produce disruptive new ideas. Researchers collaborating remotely were more likely to do technical work such as data analysis.

The team also found that when researchers were convening in person, even big differences between individuals’ citation numbers had little effect on the likelihood of their collaborating on conceptual work. But in remote teams, the chances of researchers jointly conceiving ideas declined drastically when one had significantly more citations than the other. “The finding that on-site teams better integrate junior scholars into conceptual tasks and serve as an escalator for new talent is powerful and timely,” says University of Arizona sociologist Erin Leahey, who studies specialization, disruption and collaboration. “In this era of proliferating remote collaboration, it’s important for us to know the critical contributions that in-person collaborations make.”

The findings challenge the assumption that merely connecting people online leads to the growth of new ideas. “There’s something missing in this formula,” Wu says. In theory, remote collaboration enables more new combinations of knowledge—but Wu believes it also makes it harder to put the pieces together. “If you want to encourage radical innovation, you’ve got to bring people together,” he says. “You cannot just rely on digital infrastructure.”

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